Tag Archives: Nelson

Prairie Teacher

“Oh, what a work we teachers have in the molding of the lives of those little ones,” wrote Andrea Nelson in her diary on an autumn evening in 1918.1 At the age of twenty-one, she had just begun her third term as a teacher in southeastern South Dakota.2 She took great delight in her fourteen students, who, she noted, were “in general a bright talkative set.”3 This was her first term at Prairie School District 9, located in Mission Hill, a rural community near the town of Yankton.4

Andrea Mathilda Nelson was born on 31 December 1896, the daughter of Danish immigrants Fred and Christina (Schmidt) Nelson.5 Raised on a farm just west of Yankton, Andrea was the fourth child of nine.6 After completing her grammar school education at a one-room schoolhouse, Andrea, along with her sisters, succeeded in receiving teaching certification from the Southern State Normal School located in nearby Springfield, South Dakota.7 Andrea taught first in Turkey Valley, then at the Dewey School near Lesterville, and finally in Mission Hill, where she was conveniently able to board with her elder sister, Anna, and her husband, Jim.8

With the freedom provided by a small class size and a rural school district, Andrea enjoyed and recorded many memorable moments with her students: she took them on noontime walks to the nearby molasses mill, joined in on games at recess (“Pump Pump Pull Away” and “Ruth and Jacob”), and received invitations to visit them at their homes.9 One evening, she wrote, “Shortly before recess I excused Tim and Royal in order that they might go chase Ficke’s cows out of the nearby cornfield. They came back at recess with two watermelons which Royal brought from home and which we feasted on together.”10

Andrea Nelson at a schoolhouse with her students, Yankton County, South Dakota, ca. 1916-1918; digital image 2012, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2018.

Fond of the outdoors herself, she also recognized its importance to children, even offering an early dismissal one “very fine day.”11 On another occasion, she wrote, “A very beautiful calm autumnal day. But nine at school. We had our drawing lesson outside. At recess the children earnestly requested me to permit them to recite and study outside the remaining hour and fifteen minutes. I consented after which they gleefully clapped their hands. The shade of one tree served as study room while that of another nearby took the place of recitation room. The children did not abuse their privilege. As a result we all fully enjoyed school in the fine October out of doors.”12

The next day, still taking advantage of the autumn weather, she wrote, “After school I hied me to the open. There I helped Jim pick potatoes for about half an hour. He said that I broke a schoolmam’s reputation in taking up such work after a day at school. I replied that he could count on me for doing things out of the ordinary for those in our profession.”13

In late September, Andrea wrote, “Think Spanish Influenza is going about the neighborhood. Only eleven at school.”14 Before long, the number of students in her class dwindled still further as the influenza continued to spread. In early October, just a month into the school year, Andrea recorded in her diary, “Only six at school again. […] I hardly feel that I’m earning my $4.25 per day these days.”15

Tragically, it would be only a matter of time before Andrea was struck with influenza herself, and the final pages of her diary are left blank. Exactly one month after the unexpected death of her father, Andrea died on 28 November 1918 while a patient at St. Bernard’s Hospital in Council Bluffs, Pottawattamie County, Iowa.16 Her younger sister, Helena, a student at Springfield Normal School, took over her teaching position at Prairie School District 9 and completed the sorrow-filled school term with Andrea’s students.17

Copyright © 2018 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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The Nelson Family at Home

The leaves had already fallen from the trees surrounding the modest two-story farmhouse belonging to Fred and Christina (Schmidt) Nelson when this photograph was taken in late 1904.1 Situated near the scenic bluffs along the Missouri River west of Yankton, Yankton County, South Dakota, the house was said to have had a creek running through the corner of the kitchen as a source of fresh water.2 Its simple, symmetric design featured a center door and four front windows on its clapboard walls, with a chimney appearing above the gable roof on one side. The house was likely painted white with a trim of a different color around the windows and door. Many trees surrounded the house, which was situated on an incline; the remote, wooded landscape seems to lend truth to family lore of the children fearing howling wolves (or coyotes?) as they walked to and from the nearest country school.3

Fred and Christina (Schmidt) Nelson and Family, Yankton County, South Dakota, 1904; digital image 2017, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2017.

Fred and Christina, both of whom immigrated from Denmark as children, married in 1890.4 Fred, at left, was forty years old in late 1904; he wears a loose-fitting sack suit and hat and sports a mustache.5 At center stands son Ole, ten, beside Christina, thirty-five.6 She holds baby Mary, who was born in February of that year.7 While Ole is clearly dressed for the outdoors in a coat and cap, Christina, like her daughters, wears no jacket or shawl. Her simple buttoned bodice and unadorned skirt appear comfortable for a nursing mother as well as household duties.

The open door behind Christina suggests that perhaps she and the girls had just stepped outside for the photograph. In a cluster at right stand Anna, thirteen; Helena, nearly or barely four; Louise, five; Julia, twelve; and Andrea, nearly eight.8 All of the girls wear their hair neatly parted and plaited down the back; it was said that the sisters would line up each morning, oldest to youngest, to braid each other’s hair.9 They wear dresses that, with the exception of the youngest’s, fall below the knees, and all wear dark stockings. Their dresses have high necks and full bishop sleeves; a few additional details can be distinguished, such as the plaid fabric of Andrea’s dress and the belt at Anna’s waist.10

The occasion for this photograph is not known, although perhaps it was taken by an itinerant photographer who made stops at rural homes throughout the Midwest. Unlike formal studio portraits of the era, this photograph is as much about the place as the people, allowing a glimpse into the lives of the Nelson family that would otherwise be missed.

Copyright © 2017 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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Farm Girls

Sisters Helena, Louise, and Andrea Nelson donned overalls and posed on their family’s farm near Tabor, Yankton County, South Dakota in this candid photograph dated circa 1916. Andrea, nineteen in the summer of 1916, had recently completed her studies at the Southern State Normal School in Springfield.1 Both Helena, fifteen, and Louise, sixteen, would be students there in the fall, while Andrea would go on to her first term as a teacher at a one-room country school.2

Helena, Louise, and Andrea Nelson, Yankton County, South Dakota, ca. 1916-1918; digital image 2017, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2017.

Pitching in to help out on the farm would have been the norm for the Nelson girls, the three middle children in a family of nine. Helena’s daughter later recalled her mother’s stories of working in the fields in the summertime,3 and in a letter dated 1918, in response to a question from her cousin about taking summer courses, Andrea replied, “Oh, how I’d love to, but guess it’s chickens to tend etc. and overalls to wear. Suppose that too will be sport, but after all, is there anything like being a schoolgirl?”4 The Nelson girls would have been especially needed on the farm that summer, as their older brother, Ole, was in the service.

While many decades had yet to pass before women wearing pants would become truly mainstream, I can’t imagine that it would have been unusual at this time for young women to wear the clothing most suitable for farm labor while at home among family. The overalls and loose collared shirts worn by the Nelson girls might have been hand-me-downs from their father and brother (even Levi Strauss & Co. didn’t begin to make jeans especially for women until the 1930s!), and, positioned side-by-side in a field with wide-brimmed straw hats atop their heads, the sisters—or the photographer—clearly recognized that this was a photo op not to be missed.

Copyright © 2017 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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Military Monday: A Duty to His Family

Today marks the World War I centenary, although it would be a few more years before Ole James Nelson, a young farmer from rural Yankton County, South Dakota, would make his way overseas as a mechanic with the U.S. Navy Aviation Section.

Ole enlisted on 3 May 1917 at the age of twenty-two, within a month of the United States entering the war.1 According to a county history, he served in Eastleigh, Hampshire, England.2 His journey to Eastleigh, however, may have been a roundabout one; in fact, he may not have left American soil for at least a year after his enlistment. One photograph suggests that he completed his training in Buffalo, New York;3 another photograph was sent to his family from Charleston, South Carolina, in May of 1918.4 That October, his sister wrote to him, commenting, “Wonder if you are still at Quebec.”5

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Ole Nelson, Charleston, South Carolina, 1918; digital image 2013, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

Ole’s time in Eastleigh was likely brief. The United States Navy established a naval air station in Eastleigh in July of 1918 to assemble and repair aircraft, including Caproni Ca.5 and Airco DH.4 and DH.9 bombers.6 This, almost certainly, is how Ole made use of his time as a mechanic. The base was in operation, however, for only a matter of months, as it closed following the armistice later that year.7

As it turned out, Ole’s days in the service were numbered, although not because the “war to end all wars” was winding down. After receiving notification of his father’s unexpected death, which had taken place a matter of days before the armistice,8 Ole applied for an honorable discharge, which was granted on 29 January 1919.9 As the eldest son, Ole was to return home to manage his family’s farm and to care for his mother and younger siblings; what he did not learn until his return, however, was that one of his sisters had also passed away in his absence, having succumbed to what was said to be a combination of Spanish Influenza and shock at the death of her father.10

A return to the farm, following what must have been an exciting time in this young man’s life, was perhaps not what Ole had initially had in mind for his future, but after duty to his country, he had a duty to his family.

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A Golden Anniversary Celebration

One warm afternoon during the summer of 1902, a crowd gathered at the home of local pioneers Niels and Juliane Sophie (Hennike) Olsen. The couple, who had retired from farm life several years before, was celebrating fifty years of marriage, and all of their children and grandchildren were invited to their home located near the center of town at 605 Broadway in Yankton, South Dakota.1 The event was surely a memorable affair, and the local newspaper gave a glowing report of the afternoon’s activities:

Mr. and Mrs. Nels Olson celebrated their golden wedding yesterday afternoon at their home on Broadway. All their children, eight in number, were present with their families. Their names are as follows; Ole Nelson, Mission Hill; John Nelson, Viborg; Christ Nelson, Lakeport; Fred Nelson, Lakeport; Mrs. J. Nissen, Yankton; Mrs. C. Calleson, Yankton; and Miss Helena Nelson, Yankton. Rev. C.K. Solberg spoke a few words appropriate to the occasion and presented to the venerable couple two fine presents from the children, a gold headed cane to “father” and pair of gold glasses to “mother.” The “old folks” came from Denmark in 1874 and made their first home in America near Lakeport, S.D. Eight years ago they moved to Yankton, their present home. They are in fairly good health and enjoy comfort and happiness surrounded by kind children.2

Niels Olsen and Juliane Sophie Hennecke had married in Haraldsted, Soro, Denmark, on 30 July 1852.3 For the first twenty-two years of their married life, they resided in Denmark; their twenty-second anniversary, however, was spent aboard ship as they ventured to America.4 Their years since had been spent in southeastern South Dakota, where they claimed a homestead and where Niels had recently served a term as a rural postmaster. All eight of their surviving children remained in the area, and to commemorate their fiftieth anniversary, an informal group photograph was arranged on the porch of their home beneath the shade of several large trees.

Olsen Golden Anniversary

Olsen Golden Anniversary, Yankton, South Dakota, July 1902; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

The couple of honor is seated near the center, surrounded by those in attendance. Niels wears a wool three-piece suit and tie, as do most of the men, while Juliane wears a patterned shirtwaist with a bow at the neckline. Patterned, striped, or light-colored cotton fabrics seem to be popular choices among the women for their summertime wear. The adults, including the couple’s children, sit or stand in two rows, and three infants are perched on laps. Nine young grandchildren – including four sisters in matching dresses – cram together in the front, sitting cross-legged on the wooden plank floorboards. The group is relaxed; there are a few smiles, several women cross their arms comfortably, and a few maternal faces are turned away from the camera, intent on minding the couple’s many grandchildren.

I have to hope that this well-dressed crowd had the opportunity to partake in some refreshing lemonade in honor of the occasion!

In the back row, from left to right, are Reverend Solberg, Mrs. Solberg, Harry Nissen, Fred Nelson, Ole Nielsen, Harry Nielsen, John Nielsen, Eric Boysen, unknown, and Chris Callesen. In the middle row, from left to right, are unknown, Dora Nissen, Cleora Nielsen, Hannah Nielsen, Stena Callesen, Cecilia Boysen, J. Chris Nelson, Niels Olsen, Juliana Olsen, Helena Olsen, Jennie Nelson, Edith Nelson (child), Christine Nelson, and Helen Nelson (child). In the front row, from left to right, are Robert Nelson, Anna Nelson, Louise Nelson, Andrea Nelson, Julia Nelson, Bessie Nelson, Ole Nelson, Alvin Nielsen, and George Boysen.5

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A Slumber Party at “The Bee Hive”

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    The Bee Hive, Yankton County, South Dakota, ca. 1918; digital image 2014, privately held by [personal information withheld].

The Bee Hive, Yankton County, South Dakota, ca. 1918; digital image 2014, privately held by [personal information withheld].

Slumber parties, as it turns out, have a long history among teenage girls. The caption, “They look happy don’t they? No wonder for they are just going home from a slumber party at ‘The Bee Hive,'” is penned on the back of this South Dakota snapshot, dated circa 1918.

In the photograph, a gaggle of girls crowds together on the porch of a clapboard building, located in or near Yankton County, South Dakota. All are dressed informally in simple cotton dresses. Several wear sailor-style neckerchiefs, a nod to the ongoing war abroad, and one dons a cap. Their short sleeves suggest warm weather; in southeastern South Dakota, this may have been anytime from May through September. Two squirming kittens can be spotted on the girls’ laps as they all lean together, their eyes on the camera.

From left to right sit Helena Nelson, Marguerite Miller, Andrea Nelson, Louise Nelson, Edith Nelson, and Mary Nelson. Helena, Andrea, Louise, and Mary were sisters; Edith was their cousin, and Marguerite was a close friend and neighbor in Township 93, near present-day Tabor. At some point, all attended the Southern State Normal School in nearby Springfield, where they gained the credentials needed to teach at the local country schools.1

What, exactly, was the Bee Hive? In September 1918, Andrea Nelson wrote in her diary that, following a barn dance held in honor of a local soldier home on furlough, “Jim, Anne, little ones, Helena, Mary, and I stayed at the Beehive from three till morning.” Although Andrea’s guest list indicated that all present in the photograph were guests at this particular dance, it must not have been the same occasion, as, “About five Jim took Helena on to town, as she was to start by car with Kecks at six for the fair at Huron. The rest of us had a late breakfast. Then went to church.”2

She made one more mention of the Bee Hive in her diary when, several weeks later, she wrote, “Julia called up from Yankton after school. She said that a lady would be at the Beehive tomorrow night to demonstrate the preparation of sugar beets. She wanted us to come up.”3 This suggests to me that the Bee Hive may not merely have been a clever nickname for a friend’s home, but may actually have been a sort of social club or church-based organization – a place where one might stay the night but also take part in educational programs. I wonder if any locals still recall the name.

This photograph most likely dates to the summer of 1918. Mary, the youngest of the girls, pictured at far right, was fourteen that summer,4 and although her skirts still seem a tad shorter than those of the others, her hair is in the same style of twist as that of her seventeen-year-old sister, Helena.5 Andrea, the eldest at twenty-one, died unexpectedly late that year.6 This photograph was likely tucked away as a memento of a happy time when all were together for a lighthearted slumber party.

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‘Round the Maypole

Helen Nelson was a student at the rural Southern State Normal School in Springfield, Bon Homme County, South Dakota, or perhaps a recent graduate, when she pasted this series of photographs in her scrapbook.1 A group of young girls dance ’round a Maypole twined with ribbons, certainly in celebration of the first of May. They were likely students at a local one-room schoolhouse, perhaps from a teaching assignment near Helen’s home in Yankton County, South Dakota, or from the “practice school” near Springfield.2

Raising a Maypole for a May Day celebration seems just the type of thing that an enthusiastic young teacher would have arranged to brighten a typical school day. Andrea Nelson, Helen’s elder sister, wrote in her diary of spontaneous recess games such as “Pump Pump Pull Away,” as well as moving class outdoors in good weather.3 This Maypole must have been a planned affair; the ten or so girls, ranging in age from perhaps six to twelve, seem to be dressed in their best summer dresses, with most in white or pastels. Several wear bows in their hair as well as sashes at their waists. In the final photograph, they bow to each other as their dance concludes.

Although this celebration took place near 1920, Maypoles were certainly nothing new. The American Girls Handy Book, originally published in 1887, mentions the ancient origins of the day and gives the following instructions for a Maypole dance:

“An even number of persons are required for this dance; half the number take the end of a ribbon in the right hand and half in the left; they then stand facing alternately right and left. When the dance commences, each dancer facing the right passes under the ribbon held by the one opposite facing the left; she then allows the next person going to the left to pass under her ribbon, and so, tripping in and out, under and over, the ribbons are woven around the pole.”4

The dance goes on, including variations to weave the ribbons together, and all the while, according to the Handybook, “An appropriate song, with words set to a dancing air, should be sung by those taking part in the May-pole dance.”5

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